Lessons from Ireland’s abortion ban

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With access to abortion in the United States, Dr. Lorraine Grimes identifies some of the tragedies Irish women have endured over the decades and urges lawmakers to consider international best practices and women’s lives.

As uncertainty arises in the US about the stability of the Roe v Wade ruling on privacy and abortion rights, it is important to reflect on international lessons. Before 2019, Ireland had one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. This constitutional ban cost women in Ireland their dignity, their health and sometimes their lives.

Shelia Hodgers

In 1983, Shelia Hodgers, a breast cancer patient, became pregnant. When the hospital found out she was pregnant, she immediately stopped taking her medication. Shelia developed a tumor and asked to have her cancer treatment resumed. She was rejected and forced to continue the pregnancy. Shelia died shortly after birth on March 16, 1983.

Michelle Harte

In July 2010, Michelle Harte became pregnant while undergoing cancer treatment. Although her doctors advised her to have an abortion because of the danger to her health, the hospital refused to allow an abortion. Amanda was forced to travel to the UK while she was very ill. She died of cancer in November 2011.

Savita Hallappanavar

In 2012, Savita Hallappanavar, a woman with a planned pregnancy, was denied a termination amid an inevitable miscarriage. After almost a week of miscarriage in the hospital, Savita died of blood poisoning. Decisions not to treat women during pregnancy have resulted in death. Doctors don’t know when a threat to health or life is “risky enough” to intervene. That choice is in the hands of legislators rather than medical professionals, and the woman’s choice is completely ostracized.

A memorial to Savita Hallappanavar in Ireland.

“Miss Y”

Refusing an abortion contravenes the woman’s consent during pregnancy. Minors and migrant women are particularly vulnerable when it comes to autonomy. In 2014, “Miss Y”, seeking asylum in Ireland, was suicidal after becoming pregnant through rape. She was denied an abortion and had no travel papers. “Miss Y” attempted to leave the country but was arrested. She was locked up in a mental institution against her will. “Miss Y” went on a hunger strike in the institution and was subjected to force-feeding and hydration. She had no choice but to continue with the pregnancy and give birth via cesarean section. Her health deteriorated significantly after the birth and she was admitted to a direct care center.

Amy Dunne

In 2007, Amy Dunne, a 17-year-old with an anencephalic pregnancy, was denied an abortion. She was told she would be arrested if she tried to leave the country for an abortion. The passport office was informed not to issue her a passport.

Minors, survivors of a rape

In 2016, a pregnant minor was forcibly held in a psychiatric facility against her will because she wanted to request an abortion. As a rape survivor, she had to prove to the Supreme Court that she was “suicidal enough” to grant an abortion.

“Miss P”

The denial of abortion violates the right to dignity and privacy of women and their families. In 2014, “Miss P”, who was clinically brain dead, was kept on a life support machine by the hospital. The family was totally opposed to this treatment and had to go to court over Christmas week to have their life support machine turned off. Her daughter, sister, mother became an incubator for her unborn child.

Amanda Mellet

After being diagnosed with a fatal fetal condition, Amanda Mellet had no choice but to continue the pregnancy until she died in utero or shortly after birth. Her only other choice was to travel abroad for an abortion. In 2016, the UN Human Rights Committee concluded that the Irish state subjected Amanda Mellet to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and violated her right to privacy.

Access to abortion is currently threatened in the United States, and in turn, women’s choices and lives are threatened. The US is now at a crossroads on access to abortion, before proceeding, consider lessons learned in Ireland, consider international best practices and consider women’s lives.

* dr Lorraine Grimes is a postdoctoral fellow at the Social Science Institute, Maynooth University, Ireland. Her research specializes in women’s rights and reproductive health care in Ireland.

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